Sunday, 23 June 2019

Bethlem Royal Hospital parkrun

The Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem (Bethlem) was founded in 1247. The original site was on the land which is now occupied by Liverpool Street Station - Liverpool Street itself was once called Bethlem Road. As the years passed, it moved location a few times. Firstly to Moorfields, East London in 1676 on the site of what is now Finsbury Circus - this was known as New Bethlem - sadly the buildings for these are long gone.

Very early in its existence, the name 'Bethlem' had mutated into 'Bedlam' and this is how many would have referred to it, in fact some still do. Of course, these days it may seem a little distasteful and insensitive to use this name for the hospital. Use of the word expanded beyond just the name of the hospital and became ingrained in the English language as a way to describe a 'scene of uproar and confusion'.

bethlem royal hospital

Over the years the hospital went from being a shelter for travelling pilgrims through to being known as a lunatic asylum, mental hospital and finally a psychiatric hospital. It is generally thought that 1403 marks the time it truly became dedicated to mental health. In fact it is the world's longest running psychiatric hospital and the largest of its kind in the UK.

It has had dark times where the treatment of its patients was truly barbaric by today's standards; patients being restrained in chains and being beaten by staff were just considered normal. It was quite fashionable from around 1610 to visit the hospital as a form of entertainment, a kind of human zoo where fee-paying members of the public would take pleasure in watching the struggles and antics of the mentally ill patients.

meeting point

In 1815, it moved south of the river to St George's Fields and was housed in the building that we now know as the Imperial War Museum. The hospital building was much larger than what we see today as some parts were demolished once the hospital left this site. It was around this time it came under the ownership of the crown and picked up its Royal prefix where it became one of the five royal hospitals of the City of London. The architect Augustus Pugin, who designed the Palace of Westminster, was a patient here in 1852 shortly before he died.

1930 is when the hospital moved to its current location in Beckenham, South East London and became Bethlem Royal. It sits in 365 acres of grounds which were formerly part of the Monks Orchard Estate. Sadly the original centrepiece of the estate, 'Monks Orchard House', which was one of the most substantial mansions in the area, was demolished during the construction of the hospital buildings.

there was a very large contingent of tourists present and we posed for a group photo

The newly designed buildings left behind the hospital's grim past and ushered in fresh new approach to the treatment of its patients. They are mostly one-two story buildings and are pleasantly spaced to have a 'village feel' with many areas of green/trees/flowers in between. It wasn't long before the NHS was created and the hospital was amalgamated with the famous Maudsley hospital in Camberwell.

In a pioneering move, the hospital became the first NHS facility to have a weekly parkrun held entirely within its grounds, and of course this makes perfect sense as exercise is a well-known way to stay healthy in both body and mind. The event is fittingly called Bethlem Royal Hospital parkrun. We visited the event in June 2019 and took part in event 5. We travelled by car and upon entry followed the signs to the free car park within the grounds of the hospital. The advice is to leave 10 minutes to walk from the entrance/car park to the meeting point of the event - possibly a bit longer if you need to visit the toilet.

the new quiet signs and the start

The closest train station is Eden Park and although it is only a few hundred metres from the course, there is no direct access at this point. Instead you need to walk just over a kilometre to the main entrance, so be sure to leave enough time to complete the journey plus the advised 10 minutes from the main entrance. If arriving by bicycle you will find bicycle racks within the main hospital near the 'Bethlem Museum of the Mind' or you could just take it with you to the meeting point where I imagine it'd be fairly safe.

If you are looking for the toilets you'll find them in-between the community cafe and swimming pool which are both clearly signposted and positioned quite nicely en-route to the start, which was also signposted albeit with temporary signs. The meeting point itself can be found at the edge of the wooded area as you head northwards. The briefings take place here before everybody walks through the woods to the start area.

the long line of participants heading off from the start

It's important to note that, given the nature of the hospital, there is a photography policy in place across the site. Essentially, you must not take photos around the main hospital areas of the buildings or of people/patients that you do not know. However, photography over in the vicinity of the parkrun is generally ok as long as you are mindful with regards to the policy. As you'll see I have still taken photos for use here on the blog to give a better visual idea of the course.

The course is made up of two anti-clockwise laps around the two large open grassy meadows that are nestled within the woods. They are mostly left to grow naturally with many wild-flowers and long grass present, but the hospital gardeners keep the path sections neatly mowed and this makes the course very easy to follow. Being private land, access to dog owners is very restricted, so for the purposes of parkrun dogs are not allowed. You will still find dog walkers present, but they are obliged to have pre-registered their dog with the hospital staff before being brought onsite.

the course

The start is fairly narrow so it's worth making the extra effort to line up in the most appropriate place for your intended pace. I was run-walking with my daughter and had my son in his running buggy, so we stayed almost right at the back to avoid holding anybody else up. Underfoot is almost entirely grass with just a few bits being dirt paths. As far as the hill profile goes, it's basically flat - you may notice the slightest change of elevation at points, but it's nothing more than that. You may also notice that the grass is a little bumpy in places (it's more noticeable if you're running with a buggy).

Although you may read or hear that it's a figure of eight course, I'd say an hourglass shape is a more accurate description as the course doesn't technically cross itself like an eight does. The transfer between the two meadows is via a short, but fairly narrow dirt path through the wooded area that separates them. It's down to single file in here and is two-way, helpfully you'll find cones to help you stick to the correct side of the path. If it's been raining it's likely to be very soft underfoot here. While on this subject, the course is likely to require trail shoes when conditions are on the wetter side, but road shoes were just fine in the dry summer's day conditions we had during our visit.

the course

The area is very pleasant and it feels like you're in the middle of the countryside even though it is technically in London. The grassy paths are quite fun to negotiate and they meander in a really pleasant, flowing way. You will of course find direction arrows and some lovely marshals on hand at various points around the course. Once the two laps are complete, the finish is found on the woodland path that you walked along to reach the start after the briefing. Once across the finish line you'll find barcode scanners waiting to scan your barcode and finish token.

Post-event the team move across to the onsite Community Cafe which is basic, but quite pleasant and because it isn't a fancy-pants place is really reasonably priced - we picked up a tea, two hot chocolates, a sandwich, some crisps, some chocolate and an ice cream for under £6! On a serious note, it is worth remembering that you are within a working psychiatric hospital environment so expect to see some residential patients around and be respectful of their needs.

the approach to the finish

The site has a Nature Trail which you can follow and this takes you through both the historic and newly planted orchards. Plus as mentioned above, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is located on-site, but the opening times are restricted, so if you would like to visit after parkrun you will need to do so on either the first or last Saturday of the month.

There's also an art gallery which is fitting as the hospital uses many of the arts as treatment programmes for its patients, in fact many of the featured artists have been patients over the years. The hospital also featured in an access-all-areas BAFTA-award-winning TV mental health documentary called 'Bedlam' which was aired on Channel 4 in 2013. I was going to watch it before visiting but sadly it wasn't available online when I checked.

Anyway, the results were soon processed and the results of the 280 participants published online. Event 5 saw a boost in numbers as Bromley parkrun (3km to the east) was cancelled. So far the average number of attendees stands at around 200. To see the course in more detail you can take a look at my GPS data on Strava and there's also a Relive course fly-by video which you can find on YouTube.

Related Links:

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Hanworth parkrun

Hanworth is a district in west London with a population of around 23,000 people. The name is thought to have come from the Anglo-Saxon words 'haen' or 'han' and 'worth' and means 'small homestead'. Over the centuries it has had various variants used including Haneworde, Hanewrthe and Haneworth.

The Manor of Hanworth was held by various people and families from around 1000bc until in 1512 it came to the Crown. Henry VIII used the original manor house as a hunting lodge before being granted to Anne Boleyn and subsequently to Katherine Parr. It was also home to Princess Elizabeth, who is said to have stayed at the house on occasion after becoming Queen. It is thought the park grounds were laid out during the 16th century.

hanworth air park / hanworth parkrun

The manor house burnt down in 1797 and its replacement was built five years later just a short distance to the north. The new house was called Hanworth Park House. In the early 20th century the house was used as a military hospital during the First World War. The estate was then bought by John Alexander Whitehead and created an aerodrome called London Air Park, which was also known as Hanworth Air Park.

Hanworth Park House became the aerodrome's clubhouse and many lavish society events were held here, including aerial tea parties, air pageants and races. The airfield itself is famous for being visited by the Graf Zeppelin on two occasions and as the landing place for Amelia Earhart who flew into Hanworth a couple of days after becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

start area

With Heathrow airport nearby and expanding, the Air Park was eventually forced to close. The land was bought by the local authorities and turned into a 52 hectare park in 1959. The Grade II Listed house was used as a residential care home from the 1950s until the 1990s. Sadly it has been neglected ever since and currently lays unoccupied (and fenced off) within a wooded area in the centre of the park.

The park itself is still going strong and is largely made up of open fields of scrubland with intersecting grass pathways. Some of the land is now part of Feltham Community College and there is a leisure centre on the eastern border. There are some sports fields and a children's playground. As of May 2019 there is now also a free 5km running/walking event called Hanworth parkrun.

early part of the lap / raised metal trip hazard

We visited the park on 1 June 2019 to take part in event 5. The surrounding roads to the north and east of the park have restriction-free parking. Head towards Forest Road to the north if you want to be close to the start, or head to the Hanworth Air Park Leisure Centre (free parking) or side roads off Uxbridge Road to be closer to the finish and the post-event coffee which is in the leisure centre café.

If travelling by train it looks like Feltham is the closest station to head for. Although in London, the underground doesn't cover the immediate area so isn't really an option unless you fancy a warm-up jog from Heathrow Airport. Cyclists will find the closest racks in the leisure centre car park.

The meeting point and start of the event is near the house, which is hidden by the trees that surround it, so you're best to look out for the signs-of-parkrun rather than using anything else as a guide. If you arrive from the direction of the leisure centre you will pass the finish funnel way before finding the start.

around the park / longford river / st george's church

This is a clockwise two-and-a-bit lap course with a mixture of grass and gravelly paths underfoot. Being a former airfield means it's totally flat, so it's a decent option for anyone looking to challenge their best 5k effort. As far as footwear is concerned, regular road shoes will be absolutely fine in dry conditions. It's possible that some will prefer trails during the winter, but most of the course is on the gravelly paths.

The lap starts on grass but changes to gravel along the north-eastern section of the course - interestingly this section runs along the line of Longford River which is now underground, having been covered during the park's time as an airfield. The funny thing is that it's not a real river at all. It was constructed in 1638/39 in order to route water from the River Colne all the way to Hampton Court and Bushy Park to feed their water features.

hanworth park

Watch out for the raised metal plates in the centre of the path which could easily cause someone to trip. Also, at the end of this path you are at the most easterly point of the course. At this spot you are only 800 metres south of the closest point of Crane parkrun's course (blog here).

The route continues on the same surface all the way along the eastern side where it meanders gently with long grass to either side. Looking across the park I was imagining what it must have been like to witness the 236 metre long Graf Zeppelin landing on this very spot (actually, I didn't have to use too much imagination as there are videos on YouTube - check out this one which has sound).

the finish

There's a short trip across grass adjacent to the Feltham Rugby Club clubhouse followed by a short section of smooth tarmac alongside the playground. St. George's Church is now in full view - there has been a church on this site since at least the fourteenth century and it was a place of worship for the royal family during their time at Hanworth.

The tarmac soon comes to an end and the gravelly path returns for the section around the western border. If you are looking carefully you might spot part of Hanworth Park House poking above the tree-line. It's also a great spot for spotting planes on their final approach into Heathrow Airport. The course had arrows and marshals in all the right places so there was no risk of taking a wrong turn. The marshals were also very encouraging to my daughter.

post-run chatting

It's back onto grass as the lap returns to the original starting point. I should note that the grass here has quite a few potholes so keep an eye out for them. After two full laps, there's around 400 metres left until the finish. I had the kids with me (one in the running buggy and one alongside me) and it was a pretty hot morning, so we took it nice and easy. We spent a bit of time at the finish line chatting to other participants and volunteers.

I'd recorded the course using my Garmin and the GPS data can be viewed on Strava. There's also a Relive course video which I have added to my YouTube account. A total of 120 people had participated in event 5 and this is not far off the current average.

the planes

We then moved onto the Hanworth Air Park Leisure Centre for some breakfast - the options are very limited and basic, but it did the job. We were soon back in the park exploring the playground before watching the Hanworth Airpark Model Flying Club flying their incredible model planes. We finally left the park in the early afternoon and headed home. We'd had a brilliant morning at Hanworth parkrun, so a huge thanks to everyone involved in making in happen.

Related links:

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Sunny Hill parkrun

Hendon, in North London has had settlements since at least Roman times, but the name itself is of Saxon origin and means 'high hill'. In days past the area would have been largely wooded and this provided many trades with fire-wood. With many of the wooded areas felled, and Hendon's close-proximity to the ever-expanding city, it became the perfect location for farmland.

One of the farms that inhabited the area was Church Farm and it would have produced the hay which Hendon was famous for - the fields were known as Sunnyhill Fields. The house that sat in the centre of the farm was constructed in the mid-1600's and still stands today. In fact it is Hendon's oldest surviving dwelling. Adjacent to the former farm is The Church of St Mary's which is thought to have sections that are around 900 years old.

sunny hill park

The railway was built through Hendon in the 1860s and this was a catalyst for its expansion into a proper town with many motor and aviation factories springing up next to the line which they could use to transport their goods. Hendon saw another population boost when the London underground reached the town and provided an affordable way to reach the centre of the city.

The early 1900s saw the opening of Hendon Aerodrome by Claude Grahame-White. This eventually became RAF Hendon and is now home to the RAF museum (more about this below). Adjacent to this is the Hendon Police College (officially called the Peel Centre) which is where police officers receive their training. This was used as a filming location in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Iron Man vs Hulk battle).


In 1921, 16 acres of the Church Farm farmland was bought by the local council and made into a public park. It was subsequently extended to cover 22 hectares. The park in question is called Sunny Hill Park. It is mostly open grass fields with some scatterings of mature trees, plus some of the historic hedgerows which would have divided the fields have survived. It has all the modern-day facilities that you'd expect to find in a park such as a cafe, tennis courts, playground, sports pitches etc. In March 2019 it became home to Sunny Hill parkrun, which we visited on 25 May to take part in event 9.

The preferred way to reach this venue is really on foot, bicycle or by public transport and the closest tube stations are Hendon Central or Colindale (both about 2km from the start). The closest main line station is Hendon (approx. 2.5km). Also, the 113 and 221 bus services may come in useful as they stop right outside the park. I didn't spot any bicycle racks in the park but there is a playground fence adjacent to the meeting point which could be used instead.

thanks to john leonard for the photo of us

If travelling by car it's worth noting that there is a car park in the north-west corner just off Watford Way (A41), but it is pretty small. We counted and we think it will take about 31 cars. With that in mind I would have a backup plan to park on one the side roads adjacent to the park. There are parking restrictions in place but they are mostly active between 1pm and 6pm on event days. This relates to the Allianz Park Stadium which is where Saracens FC Rugby team play their home matches - I don't really know much about rugby but from what I read they seem to be pretty good at it.

Once in the park you'll need to find the meeting point and perhaps the toilets. There is no mention of toilets on the event course page, but there are some around the back of the cafe. A notice I saw inside the gents toilets suggested that these are public toilets, but they probably aren't accessible when the cafe is closed. The parkrun meeting point is next to the playground and the tennis courts which are very close to the cafe, toilets and the car park, this is also where the briefing takes place. The start is further down the path adjacent to the playground.

southern tip of the course

The course itself is made up of a small anti-clockwise loop of the northern end of the park, followed by two full laps of this picturesque park. I've seen the laps described as being figure-of-eight shaped, but I think this is slightly incorrect as to be a true figure of eight the route would have to cross itself. Which it doesn't. An 'hourglass' would be a more accurate description. The lap does however look like an eight when you look at the GPS data of the course. Underfoot is tarmac all the way around the course, so road shoes are the way to go as far as footwear is concerned.

The name of this park is really honest in its description, and while the sunny part will vary from week-to-week, the hill part is always guaranteed! So from the start there's that small loop which is around 700-800 metres in length. It's not long before you get the first incline thrown at you, it's fairly gentle and with fresh legs no trouble to negotiate.

around the centre of the park

Once the full laps start, the hilly bits become a little more serious and the first one of the lap is fairly steep. This leads to the centre of the park and immediately into a downhill which is again pretty steep - this was particularly challenging with the running buggy. The next part heads towards the southern tip of the course past the fields of long grasses and wildflowers where a series of mild undulations culminate in another steeper climb to the highest point of the course.

Heading back towards the centre of the park is where you can really appreciate the view to the north and west. If you're focussed and putting in a good effort you probably won't see it, but the arch of Wembley Stadium is visible from this section; you'll have to crank you neck around almost 180 degrees to do so, so it might be best to jog back up afterwards if you are interested in seeing it.

centre and eastern parts of the park

Back at the centre of the park the marshal sends you off into the eastern side of the park which again features a bit of a climb and descent. The course soon links up with part of the first smaller loop and leads back around to the start area outside the playground. Another lap of the large loop looms before the final approach to the finish funnel which can be found on the grass just after the playground.

To sum the course up you'd have to say it's a bit of a rollercoaster ride. In fact there are only a few short sections that are flat; the rest is either up or down. The marshals can only be described as fabulous and were very encouraging to my daughter who somehow finished this tough course only 26 seconds off her parkrun pb. She was particularly pleased when one of them told her that she was amazing, so thank you for that.

finish / cafe

After the run the team go into the Sunny Hill Cafe which serves a fusion of mediterranean and middle eastern food.

We had already made alternative plans so skipped breakfast there and headed across the road to the RAF Museum which on top of being totally free-of-charge to enter was absolutely brilliant! I was particularly excited to see the Avro Vulcan, the Hawker Siddeley Gnat T1 (Red Arrow), Avro Lancaster, and of course all the other famous military aircraft including a few Supermarine Spitfires and some German Messerschmitts and Fokkers.

raf museum

Our parkrun results soon came through and we saw that 48 people had participated. This number was lower than the usual turnout of around 80, most probably due to it being a Bank Holiday weekend. I had recorded the GPS data of the course and I got a reading of 101 Metres of elevation change during the run. You can view the data on Strava, here: Sunny Hill parkrun. The accompanying course fly-by generated on the Relive app can be viewed here: Relive Sunny Hill parkrun.

Related Links:

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Kingdom parkrun

Penshurst is a historic village in Kent. It takes its name from the manor of Penecestre (or Penchester) in which it was located. The current population figure (combined with neighbouring Fordcombe) stands at just over 1,500.

The village contains many listed buildings, but the most well-known of these is Penshurst Place - It is open to the public and according to Wikipedia is 'one of the most complete surviving examples of 14th century domestic architecture in England'. In the time of King Henry VIII it was owned by the Duke of Buckingham until he was executed for treason and the house forfeited to the king who subsequently used it as a hunting lodge (possibly while courting Anne Boleyn who lived at nearby Hever Castle).


Interestingly the village is home to the original Leicester Square - The one in London took its name from Penshurst after the subsequent owner of Penshurst Place, Robert Sidney 2nd Earl of Leicester, built a house in London called Leicester House on the land which is now home to one of the cinemas. The London square has retained the name.

As time went on sections of the manor were sold off and other large houses constructed. One of these built in the late 18th century was called South Park owned by the Hardinge family. While not on the scale of Penshurst Place it was still significant enough to host lavish parties for the elite of the day including the Prince of Wales.

kingdom / the seven sisters tree

The house was subsequently enlarged and the grounds extended, landscaped and woodland planted. The grounds made it as far as the 1950s before being divided into parcels and sold off. The house itself was stripped of its valuable fixtures and fittings, and was partially demolished. It was rescued and restoration finished in the 1960s.

In 1991, 44 acres of South Park Wood was purchased by cycling enthusiast Mike Westphal and he set about creating a mountain biking centre within the woods. The centre was called Penshurst Off Road Cycling (PORC) and was very highly regarded within the mountain biking community. He built the visitor centre building and also a house which he still lives in - the building of the house was featured in a ten episode TV show called Treetop Pavilion.

around the start

Coincidentally, I visited PORC with my brother in 2012 to have a go on the trails - at the time most of them were beyond our abilities and we both went home injured. For me it resulted in a trip to the minor injuries unit at Sevenoaks following a crash that saw me catapulted off the bike and into some brambles. My hand was badly bruised and I even had to miss a parkrun because I couldn't drive.

In early 2017, Mike sold some of the land and PORC closed down. As it was held in such high esteem within the mountain biking community, he was persuaded to have a re-think, and just over a year later it reopened as Penshurst Bike Park. This now sits alongside, but totally separate from, a brand new venture which is called Kingdom.

the opening section

Kingdom is essentially a place of wellness. It has its own cycling club, a café, a yoga studio, Nature's Gym personal training and various other activities. At the heart of it is the main clubhouse (the one that MIke built) which alongside the above is also used for events and has a 360 degree panoramic view over the woodland and the Weald of Kent from the roof terrace.

In April 2019 the venue became home to Kingdom parkrun. It's an interesting naming choice as it's not really a geographical location or park name, but essentially the name of the business venture that currently inhabits the area. Anyway, as you may have gathered from the above, this event is of the off-road variety. It takes place on some of the former mountain biking trails which weave their way along the southern edge of South Park Woods.

first half of the lap

We drove over to the event on 18 May 2019 and took part in event number 4. The car park holds around 60 cars and is free-of-charge; if it fills up you'll need to park just outside the entrance on Grove Road.

After parking up I went for a walk with the kids and bumped into Mike who was doing some chores outside his house. He filled me in on a few details about the history of the place and it was really nice to have a brief chat to the man who created this fantastic place.

the first half of the lap (still)

Being based on the outskirts of a village in the middle of the countryside does mean that travel via public transport isn't particularly easy. The nearest station is Penshurst, but it's over 3 miles away and the interconnecting roads are country lanes which are probably not the safest for walking along. You may find a bus can get you from somewhere near the station to around 1 mile north of the venue, but you'll still have to walk uphill along a country lane to reach the entrance.

An option if you fancy cycling could be to use Cycle Route 12 - also known as the Tudor Trail -  which runs from Tonbridge (taking in most of the Tonbridge parkrun course) through to Penshurst. I rode this route a few times when I lived in Tonbridge - it's mostly on traffic-free paths but some sections are on the road, and the final section from the centre of Penshurst to Kingdom is all on roads (and uphill). Bicycle racks are opposite the clubhouse.

at the bottom of the course (inc the banked section)

Once there you can find the toilets in the Kingdom clubhouse. If the queue seems long pop downstairs to find more toilets plus some changing rooms. It's worth taking some time to admire The Seven Sisters tree which is claimed to be the largest living tree in the British Isles. The briefings take place in the shadow of the tree and the start line is just a few metres along the path.

This is a three lap course with grassy/stony trail paths underfoot. I'm told that they drain pretty well, but even so, in the winter you're going to be looking at trail shoes as the preferred option. When its dry it'll be a matter of personal preference. I went with my light trails but road shoes would have been fine.

heading back up

The start is located at the high point of the course and it is essentially a case of heading gradually downhill for the first half of the lap and then all the way back up for the second. The official course page says there is a maximum elevation change of 24m - according to my GPS data, this must be per lap. My total elevation was recorded as 77 metres for the entire course.

I don't often get overly excited about a course, but I will make an exception here. I really like twisty courses, and although this doesn't have many tight turns it does have lots of long meandering ones which sometimes feature switchbacks. When you reach the bottom you encounter the longest of these curves which you then turn and run on the inside of. There are even some banked corners which were so much fun to run on - my daughter was doing her version of 'drifting' around them.

still going up / views / the house

The course was very well laid out with arrows, cones and barriers to ensure the participants followed the correct path. In fact, it was so well done that the marshals were almost not required - of course it's still best to have them there for safety reasons and for a morale boost when things feel tough. It's a credit to the organisers that this has been so well thought out and it must take a considerable effort to prepare each weekend.

You do, of course, have to keep an eye out for uneven ground which is a feature of this type of course, but you would be forgiven for not paying attention as you may find the stunning views over the Weald of Kent a little distracting. On the way back to the top you pass the former owner's house and Penshurst Bike Park, which is currently up-for-sale.

view of the clubhouse from the course / the last bit of the lap

The clubhouse building soon comes back into view and the course passes underneath a footbridge before underfoot changes to loose stones for about 30 metres or so. I ran with my son in the buggy and while most of the course was bumpy, it was perfectly fine. The loose stones on the other hand were bl***y hard work (but fun) and to top it all off you negotiate them going uphill!

So, after a further two laps have been completed you turn into the finish funnel, have a breather, then have your barcode and finishing token scanned. I had recorded the course using my Garmin and the course, including the hill profile can be found at the following link: Kingdom parkrun 4.

the loose stones and the finish

Post-event the team head into the clubhouse for refreshments. It's not the cheapest place you'll come across, but the food options generally look fairly tasty. A notable thing to bear in mind is that the cafe is totally cashless.

On-the-day we abandoned our plan to have a drink in the cafe (things got a little confusing), retrieved our packed lunch from the boot of the car and headed back down to the bottom of the course to an area that we had spotted during the run. It had a circular wooden seated area with a space for a bonfire in the middle. There was also a home-made swing to keep us entertained. Here we ran around, played on the swing and made the most of the opportunity to be surrounded by nature.

post-event picnic and playing

We had an absolutely amazing morning out, so a huge thanks to everyone that made it happen. It's certainly a venue that makes the revisit list!

Related Links:

GPS data on Strava
Relive fly-by course video (generated from the GPS data)
The Kent parkrun Venues

Monday, 6 May 2019

Newbury parkrun

Newbury is a market town in Berkshire with a population of around 40,000 people. Originally named New Burgh, it prospered through various industries such as paper making, brewing, and brick making. The cloth trade was also big in the town. Subsequently it became a convenient and popular stop-over point for the wealthy travelling from London to Bath and many inns were present in the town.

The Inn trade dwindled when the Great Western Railway opened and it wasn't until the 1980s, when Vodafone decided to base their HQ here, that the prosperity truly started again. The town is now a hub for high-tech industries. It is also known for its connection to the world of horse racing with many training facilities being based in the surrounding area, and Newbury Racecourse is situated on south-east side of the town.

greenham and crookham commons

Moving our attention a little further to the south, we find Greenham and Crookham Commons which together cover an area of around 1,000 acres. Together they form the largest continuous open tract of heathland in Berkshire and are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is this area which is home to Newbury parkrun, however before moving onto that, there is still a little more history to go over.

Before the Second World War Greenham Common had been common land, but in 1941 it was requisitioned by the Government for military purposes. The land of the common is open and flat which made it ideal for use as an airbase - so despite a brief period of around four years after the war where the site was de-requisitioned, the land became part of RAF Greenham Common.

The base was used by the United States Air Force throughout WW2 and continued through the period of the Cold War. In 1951 the original runway was replaced with a 3km long runway which would have made it one of the longest military runways in the world at the time.

extra spacious start area

There are reports of an accident where a B-47 loaded with a nuclear warhead caught on fire in 1958 when another flying B-47 accidentally dropped a fuel tank containing over 1,500 gallons of fuel next to it - engulfing it in flames (denied by the military at the time). Subsequent studies have taken place that suggest the area was (or still is) contaminated with low level uranium.

In the early 1980s ninety-six 'BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missiles' (GLCM) were based at the site. The missiles carried a W84 thermonuclear warhead which had a potential yield of 150 kilotons (for reference the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had blast yields of 15 and 21 kilotons).

The operational missiles were housed within the GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area (GAMA) which can still be easily identified by the 6 large grass-covered shelters. They were designed to withstand an air-detonated nuclear strike, having a 2 metre thick concrete ceiling plus additional layers of titanium, sand, more concrete and clay. More about the shelters later...

through the first kilometre

Naturally, the presence of these nuclear weapons caused an outcry and they lead to a peace camp being set-up around the perimeter of the site. This was known as 'Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp'. It was decided early on that this would be a women-only protest and using their identities as women/mothers legitimised the protests in the name of their children and future generations. Even though the nuclear weapons were completely removed by 1991 and the base closed by 1993, the peace camp stayed in place until 2000.

On 8 April 2000 the commons were reopened to the public. The majority of the concrete from the runway had already been removed for use as aggregate in the recently-opened Newbury Bypass, but you can still see the imprint of the runway through the natural vegetation which is slowly being restored. Some other parts of the base have survived, for example the Control Tower which is a Grade 2 listed building. Its design is one of only six remaining in the UK and is unique in the fact that it has not been significantly modernised internally.

the northern/eastern side of the course

We visited the common on 4th May 2019 and after spending two hours on-the-road we finally pulled into the main car park, which incidentally is right next to the control tower. We had initially tried to park in another car park on the opposite side of the common (Greenham Business Park) so we could be closer to the nuclear shelters for our post-run visit, but we just couldn't locate it despite using the postcode from the parkrun course page. We also couldn't find the toilets which are supposed to be somewhere within the business park...

So, as we had left ourselves a little bit of buffer time, we used the facilities in the McDonalds in the retail park at the western end of the common. With that sorted we headed towards the control tower car park as described above (for info, there was a queue of cars waiting to get in). The buffer time we had left ourselves had truly run out and by the time we had found a space, assembled the running buggy and changed into our running shoes it was just a couple of minutes away from 9am.

the eastern section of the course

The start of the parkrun is on the last remaining patch of tarmac right in the centre of the old runway. It is 600 metres from the car park which at a regular walking pace takes around 5-7 minutes. Fortunately the run director hadn't started the event by the time we reached the start point, so we composed ourselves and slotted into a nice place towards the back of the field. So the main points to take away from this would be, if you think you will need to use toilets plan this into your journey and leave yourself plenty of time to park and get to the start line.

If travelling by train the closest stations are Newbury Racecourse and Thatcham - they are both over 4km from the start line with no obvious sign of a connection. I've read that if you happen to alight the train at Newbury main train station you may be able to catch a bus to one of the entrances to the common - however you'll still be 2km from the start area.

the common and crookham athletics track etc...

For cyclists there are some bicycle racks right next to the control tower. At present there are no pre-run toilet facilities available onsite for parkrunners and there is a note on the main Newbury parkrun page reminding attendees to not relieve themselves on the common, as aside from being unpleasant for other users, doing so will put the future of the event in jeopardy.

Newbury parkrun is a very well established event which has been held on the common since February 2012. Our visit fell on the 390th event. Even from the early days this has been a very well attended parkrun which has always had the number of finishers in three-figures. At time of writing the official average is 361 but this doesn't reflect current day numbers very well. As of mid-2019 I would expect to find around 600 participants (it was the 26th busiest parkrun in the country on the day we visited - out of the 606 UK events that took place)...

The good news is that the start area is vast and there is plenty of room to position yourself where you think you should be within the field of participants. However bear in mind that you have just under 200 metres before the course narrows down to the width of the common's paths. The course here is one single clockwise lap which, with the exception of the tarmac at the start and finish, takes place entirely on gravelly paths. I would imagine that road shoes would generally be ok all year round, but some people may prefer a light trail shoe in bad conditions.

the final kilometre

Once past the first corner I don't remember encountering any marshals or arrows around the course, but there were some cones placed where required that did the job nicely. The first kilometre or so is on a perfectly straight path that heads east along the northern border of the runway. It then turns and the path meanders gently around the Crookham Common end of the route where you'll catch a glimpse of Crookham Athletics track. You may remember I mentioned above that we had the running buggy with us - the gravelly/stony surface underfoot makes for a gentle but bumpy ride for the occupant.

The views are pretty nice all around - expect to see plenty of gorse, heather and bracken. There are also a few ponds and occasionally you'll get a picturesque view over the adjacent countryside. Humans are not the only creatures you will find here - expect to see some cows and horses milling around. Also look out for the small wooden posts with red tops - these signify areas that are out-of-bounds due to ground-nesting birds such as the Nightjar, Lapwing, and the Skylark. Plus the Gorse bushes provide nesting opportunities for the Dartford Warbler.

At the end of the meandering section the course ends up on the southern side of the former runway where a long but extremely gentle incline leads back to the tarmac area and ultimately the finish line. As this is a very well attended event expect there to be some queues for the barcode scanners. Also being a wide open space means it can suffer from windy conditions - while we didn't really notice any on the way around, we did find we got very cold while waiting in the queue.

the finish area etc..

Earlier on I promised that I would come back to the nuclear shelters, well here we are! Once we had had our barcodes scanned we embarked on what would turn out to be a 45 minute round trip over to the south-west corner to see the shelters. This brings me to the reason why we attended this particular parkrun on this particular day - It was May the Fourth (aka Star Wars Day)...

The shelters were used as a filming location in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and again in The Last Jedi (2017). For these movies they became the Resistance base on the planet D'Qar and it was great to finally see them in real life - sadly you can't get amongst them as the area is still subject to very strict security arrangements. They are also regularly inspected by the Russians as part of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Incidentally they were also used in Top Gear as a backdrop for a segment on communist cars, and apparently Beyonce filmed a music video here too.

control tower / nuclear shelter

The Control Tower has a cafe and is open for visits where you can have an elevated view over the former airfield, but I hadn't read up on this before our visit and totally missed the opportunity (noted for when we are next in the area)! Instead we headed back to the car and off to another cafe we had spotted earlier in the day while trying to find the other car park. We had a lovely lunch in the Honesty Cafe which is located in an art gallery at The Base within the Greenham Business Park.

Our results came through a little while later and despite periods of walking and even coming to a complete standstill at points, my daughter (dressed as Rey from Star Wars) ended up with a new 5k personal best which was of course the cherry on top of the very delicious cake which is Newbury parkrun!

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